Port-Tales – An artistic response to Irish emigrant stories from the Imirce digital collection

Archives and heritage collections are enduring, authentic and reliable sources of information, but in the 21st century, it is clearer than ever that they cannot remain static, resisting reinterpretation. Art and cultural productions provide an invitation to engage with complex stories and subjective experience, and increase knowledge and understanding of the past in a way that the realm of history and heritage (certain, quantifiable) finds difficult to achieve on its own. Unlike historical records that are sealed documents of the past, art proposes a continuation of historical moments by pulling them into the present in meaningful ways. Following the launch of the Imirce repository of Irish emigrant letters and memoirs in March 2024, Eibhlίn Göppert and David Burke selected letters from the Kerby A. Miller Collection to underpin an exhibition that creatively explores the enduring themes of migration. 

The Exhibition 

Port-Tales (2024) is a collaborative exhibition by artist Eibhlίn Göppert and woodworker David Burke, created under the auspices of the MA Fine Arts program at Falmouth University, United Kingdom. The exhibition was hosted at the British School of Bucharest in Romania, opening for one day only on 26 March 2024. As a duo personally representing the Irish diaspora, the subject matter holds special significance. The exhibition text describes the project as follows:

Movement and migration are integral to the fabric of our civilization, shaping societies and cultures worldwide. Ireland, with its history marked by waves of emigration, reflects this phenomenon, from the Great Irish Famine (1845 - 1852), and economic depression (1950s), to present-day departures. As a member of the Irish diaspora, my personal journey of emigration mirrors that of my ancestors who sought new opportunities abroad in the UK and USA. This shared experience, coupled with my collaborator David Burke's perspective, forms the foundation of our collaborative exhibition.

Together, we have embarked on a creative exploration of migration, capturing key moments of departure and the longing for homeland. Through a series of suitcase lightboxes, we invite viewers to contemplate what migrants carry with them, whether memories or tangible reminders of the landscape left behind. These suitcases have been inspired by my mother’s collection of family letters from the early and mid-1900s, as well as David’s experience of leaving Ireland. Light, symbolizing hope and connection, serves as a beacon for the Irish diaspora, echoing the old Irish tradition of placing a light in the window to guide the way of strangers in the night. 

Former Irish President Mary Robinson (1990 – 1997) articulated the significance of the diaspora, emphasizing their role as a reflection of Ireland's growth and identity: 

“The men and women of our diaspora represent not simply a series of departures and losses. They remain, even while absent, a precious reflection of our own growth and change, a precious reminder of the many strands of identity which compose our story.” (Office of the President of Ireland, 1995) 

Her words resonate with our exhibition, underscoring the multifaceted nature of migration and its enduring impact on individuals and communities. As you the audience engage with our artwork, we invite you to reflect on your own migration experiences and connections to the broader themes explored. Through this shared exploration, we hope to foster dialogue and understanding, honoring the rich tapestry of migration narratives that shape our collective story. 

The space included an exhibition room and a room for audience participation (‘Reflections’). The suitcase-shaped lightboxes displayed along the walls of the exhibition area contain landscapes that reflect the personal emigration journeys of Burke, Göppert’s mother and Göppert’s great aunt. The light intentionally calls to mind Mary Robinson’s act of lighting a candle at the window to welcome the vast diaspora community back to Irish shores. 

The light from the boxes softly illuminated a selection of letters (printouts of photocopies of manuscripts) from the Kerby A. Miller Collection that covered the walls of the exhibition space. The letters range across the years 1884 to 1929, showcasing diverse personal stories and some of the historical shifts across a fifty-year period. Specifically, Göppert selected letters from the following series: Callaghan/ O'Callaghan Letters, Buchanan Brothers Letters, Lough Sisters Letters, Williamson Letters, Quinn "O’Brien" Letters and Kiely Letter. In reflecting on her choice to profile these letters in particular, Göppert highlighted the descriptions of longing and loneliness, but also the “comradery and sense of community” that went towards supporting newer emigrants to North American shores. She also connected with the capacity and eagerness of the correspondents to remain in touch with day-to-day happenings, despite the enormous distance between them. 

In the ‘Reflections’ room, audience members could read printed copies of the letters from the Kerby A. Miller Collection in more detail. They were also invited to capture on a postcard what they might take with them from their home country if they chose to emigrate. Responses ranged from the practical to the emotional and abstract, underlining the abundance of perspectives on the concept of home and a sense of belonging, as well as some of the realities of living a life parted from these core attachments. Göppert aims to expand on the topic through future exhibitions.

For more about Port-Tales (2024), view the exhibition video here.

The Collection 

The Imirce digital collection showcases the intimate reflections of many diverse characters in the story of Irish emigration across a period of 250 years. This is a story that can never be told in its entirety, but through collaborative efforts, we can catch a glimpse of the world the authors and their correspondents experienced and reflect on how that world has influenced and transformed the world we encounter today. Further than that, the highly documented story of Irish emigration humanises the trajectory of emigrants from countless other nations who have made similar journeys across land and sea, seeking a better life for themselves and their families. According to Göppert: 

The letters from the Kerby Miller Archives further deepened my understanding by comparing and linking past migration with present-day migrant narratives, highlighting the enduring yearning for aspects of one’s home and the continuity of human experience across generations. However, the participatory nature of the exhibition expanded the theme to encompass the broader international community and their narratives of leaving their homes. My audience comprised individuals from diverse backgrounds, including Irish, English, Scottish, Romanian, American, Uzbek, and Canadian participants, each with unique ideas of their home, ranging from intangible concepts to specific physical examples.

The Imirce digital collection recognises and celebrates the work of Kerby A. Miller (Emeritus Professor of History at University of Missouri and Honorary Professor of History at University of Galway) who dedicated five decades to the subject matter of Irish emigration to North America and understanding the experiences of the Irish diaspora community. Miller’s vast research collection was donated to the University of Galway Library in 2021, digitised in 2023 and the first tranche of material was launched to the public via the Imirce digital repository in early 2024. The project to curate and digitally release the letters and memoirs from Miller’s Collection is ongoing and will be completed by the end of 2024.

Releasing the materials digitally is a commitment by the University of Galway Library to the collection’s growth and reinterpretation as the stories of Irish emigrants continue to connect with contemporary readers, some of whom may have correspondence and memoirs of their own to contribute. The Library invites members of the public to register their interest to donate new materials via an online form on the Imirce website. Areas of particular interest are letters written in Irish in North America, and letters and memoirs produced in any language by emigrants from Irish-speaking districts. 


Marie-Louise Rouget is the Project Digital Archivist for the Kerby A. Miller Collection. In 2023, she published her graduate research, titled 'Grave Concerns: the state of public cemetery records management in South Africa'. 

Related Links 

Blog Post: Imirce is LIVE - Thousands of Irish emigrant letters now available online 
Blog Post: The O’Callaghans of Fallagh — and the Kerby Miller Collection
Blog Post: A Digital-First Approach for Kerby Miller Collection
Blog Post: Bulk Rename Utility - The Digital Archivist's Lifeline
Blog Post: Curating a Digital-First Collection: Prof. Kerby Miller's Collection of Irish Emigrant Letters
University of Galway Library
University of Galway Library Archives 


Image 1: This suitcase holds particular significance as it has journeyed alongside David to the various countries he has called home. We carefully curated the contents of the suitcase, including David's tweed suit, to authentically capture the fashion of the 1900s. David also laser-cut a sign to guide visitors to the exhibition and reflection area, where transcribed letters from the Kerby Miller Collection were displayed. To ensure visibility in low light, we placed a bright bulb inside the suitcase. Port-Tales, 2024. Credit: Eibhlίn Göppert 
Image 2: Audience members within the exhibition space. Port-Tales, 2024. Credit: Eibhlίn Göppert
Image 3: Göppert and Burke, 2024. Boyle Friel. (Spruce wood, Laser cut paper, bronze suitcase buckles, LED light strip). Size: 30cm x 33cm x 10cm. The 'Boyle-Friel' Lightbox draws inspiration from my mother's familial emigration story, depicting the departure from three key Irish ports: Cobh, Larne, and Dublin Port. Authenticity is underscored by period-specific clasps and suitcase name engraving using a pyrography machine. Port-Tales, 2024. Credit: Eibhlίn Göppert 
Image 4: Burke, 2024. David. (Palette wood, Laser cut paper, bronze suitcase buckle, LED light bulb). Size: 33cm x 46cm x 17cm. David's lightbox mirrors his migration journey following Ireland's economic downturn in 2009. He travelled through America, Australia, Southeast Asia, and Scotland where he pursued further studies. His teaching career has taken him to the Czech Republic, Vietnam, and Romania. The design, based on his personal suitcase, features visa stamps representing the 40 countries he's visited, created using Photoshop and laser engraved onto the exterior. Port-Tales, 2024. Credit: Eibhlίn Göppert 
Image 5 LEFT: Audience members reading the transcribed letters from the Kerby Miller Collection. Port-Tales, 2024. Credit: Eibhlίn Göppert
Image 5 RIGHT: Postcard reflections allowed audience members to record what they would want to transport with them and to visualise this at the front of the postcard by creating their own suitcase drawing. Port-Tales, 2024. Credit: Eibhlίn Göppert 
Image 6: Imirce launch event, 7 March 2024, Bonham Quay, Galway City Docks. A selection of letters from the Kerby A. Miller collection were on display for guests to see and enjoy. Credit: Eileen Kennedy.